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The Jewish Ethicist - Unfair Discrimination

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Take steps to avoid being discriminated against.

Q. A want ad states "Only city residents," but I live out of town. The demand for local residents is illegal and unfair. Can I give the address of a friend who lives in town?

A. Many jurisdictions have laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of characteristics which have no obvious relation to job performance. This began with race discrimination, but today extends to a wide variety of traits including sex, marital status, sexual orientation, and sometimes even place of residence. You state that in your area the employer's demand is illegal. What rights does that give you?

King David proclaimed before God, "With a pure one, You show Yourself pure; but with a crooked one, You deal crookedly" (II Samuel 22:27). But there are limits to how far human beings may emulate this quality.

Let's start with the rules that apply for a fair employer who plays by the rules. In this case, we may not make misleading statements, nor even give a misleading impression on any trait of interest to the employer. We learn this from the following Talmudic story:


[The rabbinic sage] Shmuel said: It is forbidden to mislead others, even heathens. And this position of Shmuel was not stated explicitly but rather learned from a story. Shmuel once crossed in a ferry, and told his valet, satisfy the ferryman. He satisfied him, but he [Shmuel] was upset. Why was he upset? Abaye said, he gave him a non-kosher chicken as if it had been [kosherly] slaughtered." (1)


Non-Jews in Babylonia were not insistent on kosher meat, but they did have some appreciation when a Jew makes the gesture of giving them kosher meat; thus, this gesture must not be feigned. Even though the valet didn't explicitly state that the chicken was kosher, the ferryman had a reasonable expectation that it was; thus, the valet had an obligation to disabuse him of this expectation. By the same token, if an employer has some reasonable basis to value a particular quality, and has a reasonable basis to assume the applicant has it, it is forbidden to give him a false impression.

However, in your case the demand is unreasonable, even illegal. This case is also discussed in Jewish law.

In the section of the mishna dealing with forbidden misleading behavior, we read, "It is forbidden to paint a person".(2) The Talmud asks, what does it mean to paint a person? The example given is a classic case of lying on one's resume. An elderly man who wanted to be acquired as a slave dyed his hair and beard black. After he was purchased, the dye was washed off and his poor master realized that he had bought an aged servant who was useless to him, yet whose livelihood he was still responsible for.

A few years ago a similar query reached the eminent authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in New York. He states that dying one's hair in order to appear younger to obtain a job is permissible "as long as there is no fraud, for example where he knows that he can work just like a younger person." (3) Rabbi Feinstein is referring to a case where the discrimination against an older person is unjustified, since he can work just as well as someone younger in all respects.

This however is still different than an outright lie. Many people dye their hair; the employer has no reason to assume that a dark-haired person is necessarily naturally dark. Even so, actively giving a false impression is generally forbidden. However, in this case the person is giving a true impression of his work ability, which is after all what the employer is ultimately interested in.

So if you are certain that you are able to get to work on time, and stay late if necessary, "just like a local person" (to paraphrase Rabbi Feinstein), it would be justifiable for you to take means that are occasionally used by ordinary persons. If it is not unusual for someone to give a mailing address in another city for convenience, or to have a phone number with a city dialing code, then you could put such an address or phone number on your resume.

However, it is not permissible to lie outright and state that you actually live in the city – just as Rabbi Feinstein didn't permit outright lying about the applicant's age. If the employer puts you on the spot with such a question, and you are unable to finesse it, I would recommend emphasizing that you have no problem getting to and from work on time, and reminding the employer that his questions are improperly (and illegally) intrusive.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Chullin 94a (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 60a-b (3) Responsa Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah II 61



The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.



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